Trade unionism

An aspect of the British Labour Movement to which Methodism (and especially Primitive Methodism) made a significant contribution was the origin and development of trade unions. These began to emerge following the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824 and continued to do so throughout the nineteenth century.

Methodism contributed in several ways, most notably by providing a basic training in public speaking and business skills in a way that other denominations did not. In addition to the provision of Sunday Schools, it gave them opportunities to stand in front of their fellows as exhorters, local preachers and class leaders. Such offices as chapel and society steward provided the chance to learn simple business and administrative skills. In addition, Methodist conversion instilled in many ordinary men and women a sense of self-worth and dignity and gave them a desire to better their place in society. The result of all this was that many of the more articulate labourers were Methodists.

Methodist organization, with its three-tiered system of national Conference, circuit and local chapel/society provided a model which many trade unions either adapted or used wholesale. The National Agricultural Labourers' Union founded in 1872 by the PM Joseph Arch had an annual conference, geographical districts somewhat akin to Methodist circuits, and local branches which often met in chapels. It is also possible that the union ticket and subscription derived from the Methodist class ticket. Trade union meetings often had the air of Methodist chapel worship about them, as members sang hymns, uttered prayers, quoted scripture and concluded business with the grace or a benediction. A number of unions held camp meetings which were clearly inspired by the Primitive Methodism of their leaders.

Characteristic of the Methodist support for the trade union movement was the significant role played in 1910 in the women's chain-makers' strike by the Grainger's Lane PM church and its members, at Cradley Heath in the Black Country.. This was a significant factor in ending the sweated labour of women 'outworkers' and their exploitation by unscrupulous 'foggers' (middlemen), long before the introduction of a national minimum wage.

Many significant trade union leaders were active Methodists. Four of the six 'Tolpuddle Martyrs', including their leader George Loveless, in 1834 were WM. Henry Broadhurst, founder of the Stonemasons' Union, was WM, as was Robert Morley, President of the Workers' Union. Thomas Hepburn (1795-1864), who formed the first mineworkers' union at Durham in 1832, and George Edwards, founder of the Allied and Agricultural Workers' Union, were PM local preachers. As the work of Robert F. Wearmouth demonstrates, this list could readily be extended and is indicative of the significant role Methodism played in providing trade union leadership.

  • Robert F. Wearmouth, Methodism and the Working-Class Movements of England 1800-1850 (1937) part III
  • Robert F. Wearmouth, Social and Political Influence of Methodism in the Twentieth Century (1957), pp.1-16, 80-184
  • Robert F. Wearmouth, Methodism and the Trade Unions (1959)
  • A.R. Griffin, 'Methodism and Trade Unionism in the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire Coalfield, 1844-90', in WHS Proceedings, 37 pp.2-9
  • Pamela R. Horn, 'Methodism and Agricultural Trade Unionism in Oxfordshire: the 1870s', in WHS Proceedings, 37 pp.67-71
  • Robert F. Wearmouth, Methodism and the Working Class Movements of England 1850-1900 (1972)
  • Nigel A.D. Scotland, 'Methodism and the "Revolt of the Field" in East Anglia', in WHS Proceedings, 41 pp.2-11, 39-42
  • Nigel A.D.Scotland, Methodism and the Revolt of the Field (Gloucester,1981)